19 April 2011

Sign of the times

Ford has pledged £1.5bn to make Britain its low carbon manufacturing hub. UK chairman Joe Greenwell tells Max Gosney why bridging the skills crisis will be essential to future prosperity, for Ford and the sector as a whole

There isn't much that fazes Joe Greenwell after a near 40-year career at the helm of some of the world's biggest car manufacturers. But, there's still one thing that dumbfounds the Ford of Britain chairman even after all this time. "When I see some of our apprentices, they wow me," says Greenwell. "I've been around some while, but these youngsters are so smart, articulate and have so much desire. Even after 37 years, I find that very motivating."

Greenwell's enthusiasm for new talent has seen him take up a boardroom role at sector skills council Semta. He's also passionately involved in Ford's award-winning apprenticeship scheme. Over 150 youngsters are in training on a four-year masters course at Ford sites in Bridgend, Dagenham, Southampton and the flagship Dunton Technical centre. "They need to have GCSE maths at grade B and A-C in English and science to qualify," explains Greenwell. "Once they're on board, we treat them like full-time employees and expect progress. Apprentices could find themselves in production or batch engineering or low carbon development. They will get outstanding training."

The commitment to youth is embedded in the Ford ethos, claims Greenwell. "There's a long history of engineering excellence in the UK since the formation of Ford of Britain. People like Richard Parry-Jones [former Ford chief technical officer who pioneered vehicles including the Ford Sierra, Escort and Focus] who is one of the leading lights of automotive engineering." Role models abound for today's trainees, adds Greenwell – pointing to John Fleming, a one-time Ford apprentice who is now head of global manufacturing.

Yet despite Ford's success stories, storm clouds are gathering over the wider world of apprenticeships: "The world of funding and training is changing," he reflects. Ford, with its largely self-funded apprenticeship scheme, is set to become the exception to the norm, he warns. "We've been through a period where you could get a good level of funding, but now there's going to be less money around... that funding is going to have to come in part or entirely from businesses. Those are the facts of life coming out of recession."

Those hardest hit will be SME manufacturers, warns Greenwell. The government is working hard to rally them on the importance of training and will continue to support NVQ Level 2 and 3 courses, he says. But those requiring workers with more complex technical skills will increasingly have to fund training themselves, the Ford chief predicts. "The skills deficit in this country is still troubling."

Rather than stew on this perennial industry gripe, however, the automotive sector has decided to hit back. Greenwell and his peers have been touring schools to entice youngsters into the sector. "We have a direct interest in encouraging bright young students. We go and encourage boys and girls into STEM subjects and to look at careers in the automotive sector. In particular we talk to the teachers."

The project seeks to banish misguided prejudices, says Greenwell. "People are surprised to learn that automotive manufacturing is focused on exciting areas like tackling climate change and nanotechnology," he explains. Raising interest is down to creativity, he explains, citing the example of education advisor Susan Scurlock – CEO of Primary Engineer – who shows teachers how to use the story of Henry Ford and mass assembly to help children learn numbers, teamwork and CDT skills.

The automotive sector's work has inspired a government bid, announced in January, to get students and teachers to tour manufacturing sites. Greenwell applauds the intent. "We're all doing our bit in the automotive sector, but if you've got a national project signed off by government you're going to get the benefits of scale. For me that's crucial."

The school tours project is a great example of the automotive sector blazing the trail for the wider industry, says Greenwell. And, according to the Ford chief, it won't be the last. A development strategy produced by Greenwell and his contemporaries on the Automotive Council could be influential for future national manufacturing policy, he claims.

The council was launched in 2009 and thrives on an altruistic spirit. Car manufacturers dispense with rivalries to tackle universal challenges. Meetings are co-chaired by business secretary Vince Cable, ensuring industry messages are heard in surround sound through the corridors of power.

"Critics say you need something more radical," explains Greenwell. "But for me the Automotive Council is quite radical. In the past government only got involved with industry when there was a crisis. Now we've got dialogue and co-management of the future." That future involves developing the UK car industry as the world leader in low carbon technology and growing the domestic automotive supply chain.

The Automotive Council has set out roadmaps towards achieving both goals. A blueprint on growing the supply chain defines UK OEMs' most sought after components. For example powertrains and electronics scored highly on purchasing directors' wish lists. The government and industry can now target growth in UK-based suppliers of these components.

The blueprint also identifies longer term challenges. Many UK automotive suppliers lose business because their cost per unit is higher than international rivals. However OEMs named keeping supply close to home as a key factor in purchasing decisions. As a result, UK suppliers will now be trained to pitch to car giants on a total supply chain cost basis instead of unit price alone. The tactic seems to have paid dividends: UK suppliers have won back over £100m of manufacturing work from abroad since 2010.

A second masterplan identifies the technologies OEMs want to develop to help them meet CO2 emission targets. UK R&D activity can now be tailored to target areas like electrification, hydrogen fuel cells and autonomous vehicle control. Historically diffuse areas are suddenly uniting behind common goals and the results could be spectacular, says Greenwell. "To have one single consensus roadmap agreed by industry is a powerful tool," he says. "I know that the government is looking at the Automotive Council as a way to manage manufacturing strategy in other sectors. The Automotive Council offers a good example of how it will play out."

It's hard not to agree. The ambition to become the hub for low carbon products dovetails with the government's mantra on growing advanced UK manufacturing. "Manufacturing needs to confront the challenges in terms of its strengths and weaknesses," says Greenwell. "I think the automotive sector is a great example. The UK needs to compete on what its good at and not cede ground on advanced technology to France, Germany and Japan."

To triumph, Britain must show some good old-fashioned bulldog spirit, according to Greenwell. "You can see the glass as half empty and believe the gradual decline in manufacturing GDP is unstoppable. I don't sign up to that. The recession has offered us the opportunity to reinvigorate manufacturing in the UK and pursue an international competitive advantage. We should be getting on with it."

Ford is certainly backing a long-term UK revival. The company committed £1.5bn to developing low carbon vehicle technology like its advanced powertrain on these shores last summer. The investment came after the government guaranteed £360m of a £450m loan from the European Investment Bank. The support highlights the UK's "progressive" outlook on manufacturing, says Greenwell. Ford also looks for a stable tax regime, transport infrastructure and strong public/private partnerships to guide investment plans, he adds.

But the final item on Ford's checklist is an area where the UK has ground to make up, says Greenwell. "Skills infrastructure is important and if you look at our performance as a nation we've gone backwards." Despite the relapse, Ford continues to attract quality apprentices, Greenwell stresses. However, work will need to be done to ensure the engineering talent is in place to support Ford's ambitious low carbon agenda, he adds. "The idea of becoming a leader in exporting low carbon products is underpinned by harnessing our skills base. The government is alive to that and knows we have to do better."

Max Gosney

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